Tag Archives: France

Postcard From Île de Ré, France

Ile de Re Postcard

“The French cannot get the hang of queueing.  They try and try but it is beyond them… you see orderly lines waiting at bus stops, but as soon as the bus arrives the line disintegrates into something like a fire drill at a lunatic asylum….” – Bill Bryson – ‘Neither here Nor there’

Today we planned to take a bus ride to Saint Martin-de-Ré on the Ile de Ré that was about an hour’s journey away, so, knowing that the French are the World’s worst queue jumpers we arrived at the bus station in good time to find the departure point and stand with sharpened elbows at the front of the line.  There was no line of course, just a disorderly crowd of people that was steadily getting larger and more excitable as we waited for the bus.

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A Postcard From Northern France

France Postcard

My favourite part of all of France.

Something like ten-million British travellers arrive in Calais each year and then without looking left or right, or stopping for even a moment head for the motorways and the long drive south and in doing so they miss the treat of visiting this Anglo-neglected part of France; the Côte d’Opale is a craggy, green, undulating and often dramatic coastline stretching for eighty miles between the port towns of Calais and the Baie de la Somme and the mouth of the river.

English tourists may avoid it but it has been long prized by the French and the Belgians, who enjoy the informal seafood restaurants in fishing villages dotted along the coast and the miles of intriguing coves and sandy beaches that run all the way down this coast that looks across at the south coast of England and leaks away inland to a glorious countryside.

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Looking Back, France 2017

A year ago I spent a week in Northern France with family and friends.  Click on an image to scroll through the pictures…

Northern France, Commonwealth War Graves

Commonwealth war Graves Boulogne

It was early, peaceful and eerily serene and apart from a gardener carefully tending the flowers and the occasional snipping of his secateurs around the graves we were the only people there and there was no sound and I was struck by the quiet solemness that seemed to lay heavily on this place. Each gravestone is the same regardless of rank and they line up in rows as though they were soldiers on a parade ground.

Most of these victims of war were obscenely young but what struck me the most was that many were buried here but simply marked in the words of Rudyard Kipling as ‘An unknown soldier of the Great War’.  I didn’t care to think about the horrific injuries that they must have endured that stripped away their identity.

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A Gate in France, Three Ways

Vic Sur Aisne Door

I liked the town of Vic-Sur-Aisne, I liked the Wednesday street market where I bought Toulouse sausage to make a cassoulet, I liked the friendly local people in the bar who made me feel welcome, I liked the boulangerie that sold tempting pastries, I liked sitting on the pavement outside the bar beneath the tower of a medieval castle where I daily reflected on the history of the region …

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Napoleon Bonaparte, Three Ways and Twenty Separate Parts

Napoleon 1

When I was a boy, about ten or so, I used to like to make Airfix model kits.

The little models were mainly heroes from English history but curiously there was a figure of Napoleon included in the range and it was always one of my favourites, probably because he was one of the easiest to put together and to paint.  It is an odd thing but I think that Airfix kit of Napoleon Bonaparte began my interest in French history and why I went on to study the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Empire at University.

Napoleon Airfix

Other figures in the range were the Kings Richard the Lionheart, Henry V, Henry VIII and Charles I and to balance things up there was the regicide Oliver Cromwell.

Napoleon was there but not Hitler or Stalin and alongside him representing France was Joan of Arc.

For some reason Julius Caesar who once invaded England was included but not William The Conqueror.

Airfix Figures

Who was your favourite Airfix figure?

France, The Annual Family Holiday and French McDonalds

France 2017

“The people of McDonald’s need guidance. They need to be told that Europe is not Disneyland…. It should look like a normal European bistro and nothing to tell you from the outside that this is a McDonald’s except for a discreet golden arches sticker on each window and a steady stream of people with enormous asses going in and out of the front door.” Bill Bryson – ‘Neither here Nor there’

Every year I make myself a promise and every year I break it.

Generally around about February/March my daughter gives me a call and tells me that her holiday plans are disrupted because someone has dropped out and she invites me along instead. This time I said that I would be strong and resist. These holidays require the sort of preparation and training exercises that are considered even too tough for the US Navy Seals or the British Army SAS.

When the inevitable phone call came I was ready and said no, I said no in a firm voice, I said absolutely no, I declined several times and then about an hour or so later I started making travel plans and ferry bookings because this year we were going to Picardy in Northern France.

Actually I booked some airline tickets to Paris with the intention of hiring a car to avoid the long journey but the costs started to mount alarmingly and eventually I had to abandon the flight idea and take a financial hit on the fares and accept that there was no real alternative but to drive which was something I wasn’t really looking forward to if I am honest.

P&O Dover to Calais

We set off early on Sunday morning and made surprisingly swift progress along the UK’s congested motorways, caught the scheduled ferry and then made the two hundred mile journey from Calais to the town of Soisssons where we were spending the first night in a cheap IBIS Hotel.

We were staying at an IBIS hotel because my daughter Sally had got the booking dates wrong. We were due to stay at a nearby holiday park but the reservation didn’t begin until the next day so we had no alternative right now but to find a temporary stop over.

We didn’t stop driving until we reached the ubiquitous edge of town shopping mall which are a disagreeable feature of most French urbanisations as everywhere it is almost certain that the approach to any historic town or city must now pass through an aluminium clad collection of temporary industrial units, supermarkets and fast food restaurants.

And this is another curious feature of France because every town we drove through had countdown signposts and specific directions to the nearest McDonalds restaurant as though the French need the constant reassurance of the nearest set of Golden Arches.

The poor French. There they were, with their traditional bistros serving cassoulet, soupe a l’oignon and confit de canard and now all the people really want is rectangular food-like objects that taste vaguely of chicken, and a side of dipping sauce.

Mcdonalds France

Well, actually it turns out to be not so curious at all because even though they maintain that they despise the concept of the fast food chain an awful lot of French people do eat there. Across France there are nearly twelve hundred restaurants (restaurants?) and in Paris alone there are almost seventy, with even more dotted around the outer suburbs. That’s much the same as London, but with only a third of the population.

McDonald’s, or “macdoh” as it is known is now so firmly a part of French culture that the menu includes McBaguette and Croque McDo and in 2009 McDonald’s reached a deal with the French museum, the Louvre, to open a McDonald’s restaurant and McCafé on its premises by their underground entrance.  That could almost be considered as sacrilege.

A consequence of the French love of fast food is a growing obesity problem in a country that has always prided itself on being slim and healthy with a belief that there is something in the French lifestyle that protects them against obesity, heart disease and diabetes. This is called the ‘French Paradox’ and is now being exposed as a myth because they are straying from the very dietary habits that made them the envy of the world – eating small portions, eating lots of vegetables, drinking in moderation, and only limited snacking.

Overall six and a half million French, that’s 15% of the population, are now classified as obese.

When in a foreign country I like to savour the local culture so after we had settled in and the children had finished dismantling the rooms I drove to the nearby McDonalds to get something to eat.

This was a tricky experience. The place was heaving and the only way to order food was by using the interactive display boards which is relatively straightforward in England but a bit difficult in France where there is no English language option and my assistant was a four year old grandson with faster fingers than me and who was impatient for nuggets and fries.

It took a while and I thankfully avoided a massive order of about 5000€ and then we waited.  And we waited.  McDonalds is supposed to be fast food but the preparation process was slightly slower than glacial and it took over thirty minutes to be served our order.

Back at the IBIS Hotel it took about thirty seconds to eat it and when the children were all safely in bed I poured a gin and tonic and drank it and then a second stronger gin and tonic and drank that and started to worry about the next ten days and what I had let myself in for.

Ferry over to Calais

Travelling – The Grand Tour of Europe

Tourists The Grand Tour of Europe

“…nothing so liberalizes a man and expands the kindly instincts that nature put in him as travel and contact with many kinds of people.”  –  Mark Twain

People have always travelled to other parts of the world to see great buildings and works of art, to learn new languages, to experience new cultures and to enjoy different food and drink…

…In 2008 I flew to Athens and in the departure lounge queue behind us was a couple of girls and one announced to the other that ‘I only go on holiday for three things, to get drunk, get stoned and get laid’, I had to see who this person was and when I turned round she turned out to be so unattractive that I was tempted to say ‘Don’t build your hopes up, if I were you I would concentrate on the first two!’ but she was bigger than me so I said nothing of course!

In 1936 the League of Nations defined a foreign tourist as someone travelling abroad for at least twenty-four hours and its successor, the United Nations amended this definition in 1945 by including a maximum stay of six months.  In early 2010 the European Commissioner, Antonio Tajani, unveiled a plan declaring tourism a human right and introduced it with the statement that “travelling for tourism today is a right. The way we spend our holidays is a formidable indicator of our quality of life.”

Young English elites of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (early Rahs really) often spent two to four years travelling around Europe in an effort to broaden their horizons and learn about language, architecture, geography and culture in an experience known as the Grand Tour.

In fact the word tourist has its origins in what used to be more correctly called the Grand Tour of Europe, which was a term first used by Richard Lassels in his 1670 book ‘Voyage or a Complete Journey through Italy’ and after that it came into general usage to describe the travels in Europe of wealthy young men and women in the years of the Enlightenment where it was quite normal to take a gap year (or four) in the quest for a broader education.

Lassels was a Roman Catholic priest and a tutor to several of the English nobility and travelled through Italy five times. In his book, he claims that any truly serious student of architecture, antiquity, and the arts must travel through France and Italy, and suggested that all “young lords” make the Grand Tour in order to understand the political, social, and economic realities of the world.

The Traveller Oviedo Spain

The primary purpose of the Grand Tour lay in the exposure both to the cultural legacy of classical antiquity and the Renaissance and an an introduction to the aristocratic and fashionably polite society of the European continent.  In addition, before museum collections went on tour themselves,  it provided the only opportunity to view specific works of art, and possibly the only chance to hear certain music and it was commonly undertaken in the company of a Cicerone, a knowledgeable guide or tutor.

The Grand Tour had more than superficial cultural importance as the historian E.P. Thompson observed, “ruling-class control in the 18th century was located primarily in a cultural hegemony, and only secondarily in an expression of economic or physical (military) power.”

While the general objective of the Grand Tour was essentially educational (and this probably what mum and dad thought that they were forking out for) they were also notorious for more frivolous pursuits such as getting hammered, partying heavily and sleeping with as many continental lovelies as possible and so began a tradition that thousands of holiday Brits continue to this day in the party hot-spots of Europe.

When young men on the Grand Tour weren’t misbehaving like people on a stag weekend to Amsterdam they were mostly interested in visiting those cities that were considered the major centres of culture at the time, primarily Paris, Rome, Venice, Florence and Naples.

90 Rome

The Grand Tourist would travel from city to city and usually spend some time in smaller towns and up to several months in the three main cities on the itinerary.  Paris was considered the grandest and most cultured city and was usually first en-route and tourists would rent apartments for several weeks at a time and would make occasional visits to the countryside and adjacent towns.

From Paris, they travelled south either across the Alps or by a ship on the Mediterranean Sea to Italy and then they would pass on to Rome or Venice.  To begin with Rome was initially the southernmost point they would travel to but when excavations began at Herculaneum and Pompeii in 1738 the two sites also became additional major stop-off points.

Other locations sometimes included as part of some Grand Tour included Spain and Portugal, Germany, Eastern Europe, the Balkans, and the Baltic States. However, these other spots lacked the cultural and historical appeal of Paris and Italy and the substandard roads made travel much more difficult so they were not always the most popular.

Some of them didn’t have vineyards either so I suppose that might have reduced their appeal somewhat.

The British it seems have always been rather keen on travelling abroad and we have left our mark all over Europe (and not just through football violence either) in Nice one of the first and most established holiday resorts on the French Riviera, the long esplanade along the seafront is known to this day as the Promenade des Anglais and in many other historic resorts in continental Europe, old well-established palace hotels have names like the Hotel Bristol, the Hotel Carlton or the Hotel Majestic, reflecting the predominance of English customers.

In fact there are nearly three hundred hotels around the world called Bristol. They take their name from Frederick Augustus Hervey (1730-1803), the 4th Earl of Bristol and Bishop of Derry, who spent most of his life travelling around Europe enjoying the best hospitality money could buy.  What a good life that would have been, to be sure!

This sort of thing really appeals to me; both the exploration and knowledge and having a really good knees up at the same time and I have become determined to travel as much in Europe as I possibly can. There are forty-six countries in Europe and I have only so far been to twenty-nine so I am just over half way towards my objective of visiting them all.

Ryanair was Europe’s original low fares airline and is my favourite which is lucky for me because the airline has over eleven hundred low fare routes to one hundred and sixty-one destinations in Europe and North Africa.  In the last three years I have flown thirty times at a very reasonable average cost of £40 return all inclusive.

Not all of these flights were with Ryanair of course and I have been forced to use others but I generally find that these work out more expensive.  A return flight to Athens with Easyjet for example costs £120 and my biggest bargain so far was with Ryanair to Santander in Cantabria, Spain at just £10.02 return.  To put things into some sort of perspective it costs over £80 to go to London on the train from Peterborough with National Express and for that you are not even guaranteed a seat.  That is about .90p a mile and on that basis it would cost approximately £1,800 to go to Santander and back by train!

Ryanair over the Alps

In 2015 the most visited country in Europe was France, followed by Spain, Italy, United Kingdom and Germany.  Spain made the most money out or tourist revenues and on average the Germans spent most while away from home.  The most visited city was London (although as usual France disputes the official figures) and the most visited place was Trafalgar Square, followed by the Eiffel Tower and then the Vatican.

The United Nations World Tourism Organisation, which has its headquarters in Madrid, produces the World Tourism Rankings and is a United Nations agency dealing with questions relating to tourism.

For the record I visited Trafalgar Square in 2008, the Eiffel Tower in 2005 and the Vatican in 2003.

European Capital of Culture 1989 – Paris

“Here you have a city with the World’s most pathologically aggressive drivers and you give them an open space (the Arc de Triomphe) where they can all try and go in any one of thirteen different directions at once.  Is that asking for trouble or what?” – Bill Bryson, ‘Neither here nor there’

In September 2002 my son, Jonathan and I took an early morning flight to Paris Charles de Gaulle for a two night stay in the French capital and a plan to see the main sights in just one day.  After we arrived we took a train into Paris and then the metro to somewhere near to Montmartre where we were staying in the cheapest hotel that I could find.

As we emerged from the metro station the city was only just beginning to stir into life as the street cleaning machines scrubbed the gutters and North African men in high-visibility jackets swished the pavements with their besom brooms removing the dog mess and the litter in preparation for the day.

It was too early to book into our hotel so we left our bags and went straight back to the metro station stopping for only a very short time at a McDonalds restaurant (did I just call it a restaurant?) for a quick breakfast. And then we joined the commuters making their way to work and took the metro to the Arc de Triomphe where we emerged from the subterranean tunnels into a disappointingly misty Champs Élysée.

EPCOT France

The traffic circle surrounding the Arc de Triomphe was extremely intimidating.  There are no lanes and none of the usual rules of driving etiquette seemed to apply as hundreds of cars race and weave in and out of each other like dodgem cars at a fairground.

In the nineteenth century after Paris had been destroyed by the Prussian siege in 1870 an architect called Baron Haussemann redesigned Paris with elegant boulevards and long straight roads but although he was a good city planner he wasn’t blessed with foresight because he failed to anticipate the arrival of the motor car and the pathologically aggressive nature of French drivers.

priorité à droite

The French have a mad driving rule called priorité à droite where vehicles from the right always have priority at junctions and roundabouts.  This rule is in fact so ludicrous that even the French themselves have seen the sense of virtually abandoning elsewhere in the country but it remains the rule here at the busiest roundabout in France (probably) and cars entering the circle have the right-of-way whilst those in the circle must yield.  Braking is forbidden and the use of the horn is compulsory, there is no apparent lane discipline that I could make out and entering the roundabout is an extended game of ‘chance’ where drivers simply waited to see whose nerve would fold and who would yield first.

Apparently there is a car accident within the roundabout on average every seven minutes and allegedly there is not a single insurance company in the world that covers accidents within the roundabout. This is the only place in Paris where the accidents are not judged and if there is a prang here, each driver is considered equally at fault. No matter what the circumstances, insurance companies split the costs fifty-fifty.

In France the very desire to own a driving licence should immediately exclude a Frenchman from eligibility to possess one.

Northern France Wissant

We approached the Arch from the Champs Élysée and as far as I could see there was no safe way of crossing and getting to the monument until we eventually found the underground tunnel which took us safely below the traffic chaos above and into the Place de Charles de Gaulle.

We shunned the elevator and climbed the steps instead to the top of the fifty metre high building (the second largest triumphal arch in the World) and enjoyed the views of the boulevards and roads converging and radiating away from this famous landmark.  Close by we could see the Eiffel Tower and this was where we were going next.

The Eiffel Tower is an iron lattice tower located on the Champ de Mars and has become both a global icon of France and one of the most recognisable structures in the world.  The tower is the tallest building in Paris and the most-visited paid monument in the world.

Named for its designer, engineer Gustave Eiffel, the tower was built as the entrance arch to the 1889 World’s Fair.  It is three hundred and twenty-four metres tall, about the same height as an eighty storey high story building.  Upon its completion, it surpassed the Washington Monument to assume the title of tallest man-made structure in the world, a title it held for forty-one years, until the Chrysler Building in New York City was built in 1930.

France EPCOT

The tower has three levels but we didn’t have time to stand in the queue for the first stage elevator so we took all six hundred steps to the second level and we would have climbed to the very top if we could but the third level is only accessible by an expensive lift.

I guess most people would say that they approve of and like the Eiffel Towere but it wasn’t always so.  After it was built the author Guy de Maupassant hated it so much that he often ate lunch in the tower’s second floor restaurant, which was the only point in the city where he couldn’t see “this tall skinny pyramid of iron ladders, this giant and disgraceful skeleton.

I have visited the Eiffel Tower four times now; in 1979 on a Town Twinning visit to Evreux in Normandy, in 1989 on a weekend trip with some work colleagues to celebrate a new career, this occasion and finally in 2004, the last time that I visited Paris.  Unfortunately on every occasion the weather has been overcast and I have never enjoyed the clear views that should really be possible from the top.

Back at ground level the sun was beginning to break through as we crossed the River Seine and onto the Champs de Mars and as it was approaching lunchtime we found a restaurant with pavement tables in the sun and ordered a pizza.  The food was reasonably priced but I remember a large glass of beer cost €8 so I made a mental note to find a mini-market on the way back to the hotel for more sensibly priced alcohol for the evening.

Our next stop was Notre Dam Cathedral but as we had walked quite a distance already we took a Batou Mouche barge ride the short distance the River to the Ile de Cîte and as the vessel made its way through the centre of the city we soaked up the historic sites along both banks from the viewing platform at the back which was crowded now because the mist had finally gone and there was full sunshine and a blue sky.

Wimereux France Pays de Calais

Although we had already climbed to the top of the Arc de Triomphe and half way up the Eiffel Tower we bought tickets and waited in line to climb to the top of the Cathedral but sadly by the time we reached the top and walked around the external galleries the mist had returned and wrapped Paris in a gloomy grey shroud again.

Jonathan was beginning to flag by now and as it was late afternoon we walked a little further around the streets of old Paris and then took a metro back to Montmartre where we walked along the boulevard with its seedy sex establishments and grubby shops and into the touristy cobbled back streets of the district famous for painters, night-life and a red-light district.

The plan was to find somewhere to eat but he was so tired that he preferred my suggestion of returning to the hotel and I would fetch a McDonalds meal from around the corner and we would just stay in and crash! So we did just that.

Even though the French maintain that they despise the Company and the concept of fast food an awful lot of people eat there.  Across France today there are nearly twelve hundred restaurants and in Paris alone there are almost seventy restaurants under golden arches, with even more dotted around the outer suburbs. That’s much the same as London, but with only a third of the population.

mcbaguette

In just one year the chain’s French revenues increased by 11 per cent to €3 billion. That’s more than it generates in Britain and in terms of profit, France is second only to the United States itself.  It is now so firmly a part of French culture that in 2009 McDonald’s reached a deal with the French museum, the Louvre, to open a McDonald’s restaurant and McCafé on its premises by their underground entrance.

It had been an excellent day in Paris but a tiring one and as we reflected on the day we dubbed it ‘Speed Sightseeing’ and we successfully employed this method again in 2003 in Amsterdam and then in 2004 in Rome.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Alphabet

Names in the Sand

My Grandchildren leave a temporary calling card in the sand!